It’s Christmas time and that brings with it various certainties: wine, shameful work parties, indigestion and, most certainly of all, that sinking feeling you get after scampering home with the double issue of the Christmas Radio Times only to discover that the Xmas schedules are as interesting as a random Tuesday evening in February and not a patch on the (probably false) memory of festive broadcasting from our youth. However, there’s always something worth watching on TV, even if it’s a well-worn repeat, so I thought it was high time I kick started the TV blog again with a navigation guide through the choppy arctic waters of yuletide viewing, obviously ignoring the vast majority of what the main broadcasters are hyping up for us and focussing on what few treasures are in store.
We’ll be journeying mostly through BBC territory it must be said and there’s little point in looking at the myriad of obscure channels offering up repeats that we could watch on DVD any time we like (or on those channels any other day of the year). ITV will, of course, be virtually absent as well, for reasons we’ll look at later in Part 2 of this Yuletide Blog, and films will only be mentioned if they’re on a prominent channel. All set?
Well, the first day of programming in my Christmas Radio Times (Saturday 22nd December) offers up a few seasonal nuggets, albeit almost exclusively repeats from the last year. However, there’s no doubt that among the subjects we’re drawn towards at this time of year, and which represent good, solid, safe scheduling from the main channels are programmes celebrating nostalgia, variety shows of yesterday and Dickensian Victoriana. and repeats on Saturday 22nd celebrate all three of these strands. First up we have another outing for last year’s The Toys That Made Christmas. Presented by Robert Webb of Peep Show fame it’s probably a little too long at an hour and a half, but given that Christmas is so much about the receiving of toys it’s good to wallow in a little nostalgia for the playthings of yesteryear.
Next up I’m already breaking my own rules by highlighting a programme on Gold but it’s worth mentioning as it’s a dramatisation of a double act who have become something of a Christmas institution even long after their deaths – Morecambe and Wise. In Eric and Ernie (originally shown last year) we follow their early career and the formation of their enduring comedy act and it is supplemented by some other Morecambe and Wise programming earlier in the day on the same channel.
Our Christmas Dickens fix comes in the shape of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Again it’s a repeat of a recent broadcast but we need Dickens at Christmas and I missed this when it was shown earlier this year. This was Dickens’ final novel and he died before completing it – leaving us in something of a cliff-hanger considering that it is a murder mystery without a resolution. While there have been various attempts over the years to finish the novel we can never know how accurate they are or how faithful to what was inside Dickens’ mind. However, I’m definitely looking forward to finding out the BBC’s take on it in what is certain to be a lavish production – no one does Dickens quite like the BBC.
Oh, and one more thing that is essentially Christmas is, undoubtedly, Christmas music and there are two offerings on Saturday 22nd to heap Slade upon your eardrums. First up is The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song on ITV1 and then later in the evening is Top of the Pops 2: Christmas on BBC2. Delight in the brilliance of Jona Lewie and struggle to keep your dinner down as Cliff Richard appears. And if you foolishly stay with ITV until 9.00pm your stomach will probably lose its fight with the sickening round of sycophancy that is Jonathan Ross with guests Michael McIntyre and Jamie Oliver. Instead though, you’d be much better advised to hop to BBC4 where the Arena team are screening a documentary entitled Screen Goddesses focussing on the sirens of the silver screen as a product of the Hollywood studio system from the early days of cinema through to the 1960s. This looks like an unmissable documentary and it is preceded by a showing of Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and Showgirl. In the glory days of Xmas broadcasting channels used to have little themed seasons of programming over the holiday period (more on that later!) and it’s refreshing to see that BBC4 is giving us one here with a documentary on Elizabeth Taylor the following day entitled England’s Other Elizabeth (with Cleopatra leading into it) and Clara Bow: Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddess on Sunday 30th December.
Sunday the 23rd sees us wallowing in more toy nostalgia. However, your enjoyment of Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Toys With Jonathan Ross is likely to hinge around your normal enjoyment of the last two words of that title. For me, that will be not at all. ITV play it safe in the evening with Ade’s Christmas Crackers featuring Adrian Edmondson taking a look at Christmas TV from the archives. It’s bound to contain something of interest for those who enjoy vintage TV but is equally bound to be presented in ITV’s normal cack-handed manner and dumbed down significantly.
While we’re still waiting for the first piece of new programming worth watching that doesn’t feature archive this Christmas you can console yourself with helpings of both Sherlock Holmes (the Jeremy Brett vintage) and Poirot over on ITV3. Again, it’s Christmas and we need a bit of Sherlock and Agatha Christie so here they are. Another repeat today on Channel 4 is the timeless and wondrous animated version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. This is being given another outing ahead of the sequel the following evening but, let’s be honest, we need no excuse to watch this classic again. Get your hanky out for the final scene as always.
Also on Sunday we have an offering from ITV which is so bizarre that it could go either way and be surprisingly interesting or just a total wreck. It’s Joanna Lumley: the Search for Noah’s Ark which sees her intrepidly trying to hunt down the trail of the ark and find out the basis of the myth. It seems pretty globetrotting in its scope and will no doubt be nicely filmed with Lumley usually an engaging host. However, this could just as easily be a Christmas turkey as a cracker.
Christmas Eve finally sees our first piece of new television worth watching, some classic repeats and some further televisual atrocities. If The Snowman and the Snowdog on Channel 4 can capture even a fraction of the charm of the original early 80s animation then it looks sure to be a winner. To be honest, I was slightly uncertain about the idea to resurrect the character given the absolutely perfect ending of the original, but my young boy is so happy that the Snowman is alive again and that’s got to count for something. This is the absolute gem of the day’s viewing for certain.
The BBC serve us up some classic repeats of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies on Christmas Eve. Both of these double acts are part of the Christmas furnishing and as traditional at this time of year as crackers and party hats. They look increasingly creaky and ancient each year as the fashions pass further and further back into the past but it’s simply impossible not to enjoy them. Many of the Two Ronnies special programmes were shown last year which further goes to demonstrate the dearth of original programming this year, though Ronnie Barker: The Many Faces of… appears at least to be new, but I’ll watch them again anyway.
Over the course of Sunday and Christmas Eve you can catch not just one but four different versions of A Christmas Carol. These range from a bizarre musical version starring Frasier’s Kelsey Grammar, through an animated effort voiced by Nicholas Cage (!) to a version starring Jim Carrey, which must rank at the very bottom of my list of TV viewing this Christmas. I would literally need to become suddenly dispossessed of all movement in my arms and legs and with the TV remote control inaccessible even to my teeth to force me into watching this. Of course, the pick of the four is The Muppets Christmas Carol, which goes without saying.
For those with no discernible working sense of humour you can tune into Mrs Brown’s Boys on BBC1, which appears to be one of the Beeb’s hyped Xmas specials this year. However, for all normal people just get as far from BBC1 at 10.15pm as you can as a hatchet through the head is just about preferable to watching this dross. One channel which can’t offer any solace though is ITV1 (though that’s no great surprise) as they begin broadcasting at the exact same time Christmas Carols on ITV with Aled Jones being joined by the cast of Coronation Street in the soap’s local church for a retelling of the nativity. No thanks.
All in all, a pretty uninspiring run of pre-Christmas programming, though there are enough decent repeats to ensure there’s at least something decent each day. We’ll back with a look at the schedules from Christmas Day itself through to New Year very soon and I’ll be talking about how TV used to provide excellent seasons of films – something which I’m happy to report is getting a mini return this year in the shape of a number of Hitchcock movies and every day leading up to and including Christmas Day BBC2 is running a Charles Laughton movie in the early hours of the morning for all you night owls, culminating in his brilliant turn in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.